PITTSBURGH -- With a tight cap situation and $33.5 million tied up in Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 salary, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to acquire most of their talent for the upcoming season through the draft.
It was a smart trade for the Steelers, grabbing a Pro Bowl safety in exchange for the No. 18 overall pick, but, barring a trade back into the first round, it means things in Pittsburgh will likely be pretty quiet on the first day of the draft.
Assuming they stand pat, the Steelers aren’t slated to make their first selection until the second day with the No. 49 overall pick, coming midway through the second round.
That means the first wave of ultra-talented prospects will be off the board by the time the Steelers make their first selection. Pittsburgh has had recent success with mid-round picks, adding players like receivers Antonio Brown (No. 195 overall) JuJu Smith-Schuster (No. 62) and Emmanuel Sanders (No. 82), defensive lineman Javon Hargrave (No. 89), and running back James Conner (No. 105).
The defense was stout last season, meaning much of the early draft should be focused on the offense.
With that in mind, here are positions and players the Steelers could -- and should -- be evaluating at the NFL combine next week:
The Steelers have plenty of bodies in the wide receiver corps, but to effectively run the three-receiver sets the Steelers favor, the team needs at least one more elite wide receiver.
Moving into the WR1 role with the departure of Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster was frequently double-teamed when he was healthy and the team lacked a consistent WR2 to take advantage of the opportunities created. After solid seasons in 2019, Diontae Johnson and James Washington are both candidates to fill that role full-time next year, but the Steelers should be keeping an eye on speedy, NFL-ready receivers in a stocked class like TCU’s Jalen Reagor or Penn State’s KJ Hamler as options to take with their second-round pick.
The Steelers’ tight ends were woefully underutilized and ineffective last season. Much of that is injury-related with Vance McDonald missing two games and the quarterback carousel failing to find a consistent rhythm with either McDonald or Nick Vannett. McDonald, who took a step back in 2019 after a career season in 2018, comes with a cap hit of $7.1 million in 2020, making him a potential cap casualty. Cutting him would save the Steelers $5.6 million, while leaving $1.45 million in dead money. Vannett, acquired in an early-season trade from the Seattle Seahawks, is a free agent, but has expressed his desire to return to Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ best option to fortify that position is through the draft, and if the team opts to choose one with their first selection in the second round, they should have their pick of the tight ends in the 2020 class. It’s not a particularly deep or overwhelmingly talented class, but Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, Washington’s Hunter Bryant, Dayton’s Adam Trautman and Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet are the best of the bunch.
The Steelers feel they have a starting running back in Conner -- even if his 2019 numbers didn’t show it. Conner battled injuries all season that led to missing six games. Because the injuries weren’t related -- affecting the shoulder, quad and knee -- general manager Kevin Colbert isn’t worried about Conner’s long-term outlook with the Steelers. Using a late-round pick to add a speedy back to complement the physicality of Conner and Benny Snell Jr. would be smart, and the Steelers could reasonably look at guys like Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, Baylor’s JaMycal Hasty or Florida State’s Cam Akers with a mid-to-late-round pick.
Interior offensive line
Given the Steelers’ dire cap situation and the need to create space to either tag or sign linebacker Bud Dupree to a long-term deal, veteran left guard Ramon Foster is a likely cap casualty. B.J. Finney is a candidate to fill that starting spot, but the top reserve lineman will likely have a price tag higher than the Steelers can afford in free agency. Those departures, coupled with both Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro cresting 30, creates a need for the Steelers to bring in younger interior offensive linemen -- especially ones who can compete for a starting job right away and can help reinstate the run game. Louisiana's Robert Hunt, Fresno State’s Netane Muti, Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz and Washington’s Nick Harris should be under consideration for the Steelers for their athleticism and abilities in the run game.
Most of the pressing needs for the Steelers come on the offensive side of the ball, but there are a couple of exceptions. The first comes on the defensive line. Hargrave is as good as gone when free agency officially opens, leaving the Steelers with a need for depth on the interior of their defensive line. After an early end to the makings of a career season, Stephon Tuitt is slotted to come back from injury in 2020 and Cam Heyward is a Pro Bowler, but filling in behind them is important for the Steelers. If the Steelers address this need early in the draft, the team could be carefully evaluating guys like NC State’s Larrell Murchison and Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike. A later-round player to consider is Missouri’s Jordan Elliott.
The Steelers lack the cap space to sign a veteran quarterback, leaving the draft as the best hope to add to the position. Tomlin has “no hesitation” that Roethlisberger will be ready by the start of the season, but adding extra insurance and beefing up the post-Big Ben plan is a smart idea after last season’s quarterback roller coaster. The Steelers aren’t in a position to draft a top-tier quarterback, and they don’t need to be. But the team is in a position to pick one up with a mid-round pick. Jalen Hurts is an intriguing option for the Steelers’ projected third-round compensatory pick. His skills don’t make him a traditional quarterback prospect, but he possesses an athleticism and mobility that the Steelers’ quarterback room largely lacks. He added to his passing game in his lone year with Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, but needs to show accuracy at the combine if he opts to participate in throwing drills. The Steelers have been vocal in their support of Mason Rudolph on and off the field, but Hurts could push the third-year quarterback for the backup job if given the opportunity.